The temporary manager

They can provide a quick fix to a big problem, but they come with flaws
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/06/2007

A few months ago, the CEO of a small coaching firm in Vancouver found he was no longer able to handle all the marketing tasks of his firm. Instead of hiring a permanent manager of marketing, he decided to hire an interim marketing manager.

“I needed someone to assist me as soon as possible,” said Tom Abbot, CEO and founder of BusyBodies Coaching. “You can go through a lengthy recruitment process, where you’re doing all the checks and balances and going through a ton of candidates and coming up with a really clear job description and everyone wants to work together for 10, 15 years. But sometimes, especially with a small business, you’re just trying to get through the month — there are some things that just need to get done.”

On a larger scale, interim managers are professionals with expertise in specific disciplines and industries, who have chosen to do contract work instead of continuing on with full-time employment. Interim managers are able to fill a wide variety of senior positions ranging from senior manager to executive. They come from the private, public and not-for-profit sectors and can be generalists or specialists.

They can help organizations fill a short-term or immediate opening faster than trying to fill that same position with a permanent person.

“Few organizations can afford to leave a senior position vacant for four to 12 months due to a resignation, termination or a leave of absence,” said Frances Randle, managing director of interim management at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions, an executive search firm in Toronto.

Concept popular overseas

The concept of interim managers is still relatively new in Canada, but they’re well-established in Europe, where they’ve been used since the 1970s.

According to a survey by staffing firm Robert Half Management Resources, 54 per cent of HR and finance directors surveyed in the United Kingdom said interim managers bring a “fresh pair of eyes to the company.”

However, only 14 per cent of U.K. companies surveyed employed interim managers on a regular basis. The most common reason cited by employers for not using part-time managers is a “lack of familiarity” with the services they provide.

No long-term commitment

For a small, but growing, company like BusyBodies, interim positions allow leaders to determine what kinds of jobs are necessary and to modify them without making a long-term commitment to any one person.

Hiring someone on an interim basis gives the organization the chance to figure out if the position and its responsibilities are a good fit for the organization and whether or not the person doing the role is a good fit.

“It can offer both the applicant and the employer an opportunity to really feel out the relationship and in fact to see if we need to tweak the job description at all,” said Abbott.

This kind of opportunity also appeals to a certain kind of candidate, one who prefers to have more freedom and not be tied down to one job for several years.

“You may get someone who’s more entrepreneurial, you may get someone who’s more task-oriented,” said Abbott. “You’re going to get a different kind of person than someone who’s looking for long-term stability. With an interim position, there’s a greater likelihood of getting an applicant who likes to do work on a project-by-project basis.”

An ‘alien injection’

However, integrating an interim manager into a workplace can be difficult. Bringing in an outsider, on an admittedly temporary basis, can be like an “alien injection,” according to Brendan Calder, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

“Whatever culture you’ve got going for you, you’ve just torpedoed it because you’ve just introduced an alien substance into it,” he said.

Research from the U.K. supports this assertion, with 36 per cent of employers surveyed stating that staff are “rather hostile” towards interims. Also, an interim person is less committed and less invested in an organization’s success because he has nothing to lose, said Calder.

That’s why, instead of hiring an interim manager when a position opens up suddenly, Calder would recommend promoting the first or second next person in line in the department rather than looking for help from the outside.

“This is an unbelievable opportunity for the boss to actually put someone in there, maybe on an interim basis, but they’re not alien to the company,” said Calder. “Start with that number-two or number-three person in that department, no matter how ill-prepared you think they are … these people rise to the occasion.”

And because they already know the people and the business, they’re more likely to get results faster than an outsider, he added.

Promoting from within not a slam-dunk

Abbott disagrees with the idea of only promoting from within, if only because unless an organization starts eliminating positions, there will always be vacancies that need to be filled externally.

Also, the next-best person in the department might not necessarily be the best person for the job, he added. He used the example of a top sales clerk at a retail store. The sales clerk has excellent customer service skills and does a great job folding clothes. When the store manager leaves, the top sales clerk is promoted to manager, but the new job requires responsibilities, such as scheduling and staff supervision, that the sales clerk has never done.

“How did being good at folding sweaters, and actually liking folding sweaters, all of a sudden qualify (this person) for a management position?” said Abbott.

However, he does support giving internal candidates priority in applying, but the best candidate, wherever he may come from, should be hired.

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